The Irish Times view on children in the pandemic: assessing the damage

Covid-19 has made children’s lives worse, and a great many of them were already experiencing real hardship

 Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon with Amy Ward and Aimee Fagan at St Mary’s Holy Faith Secondary School Killester, Dublin, where the Ombudsman’s annual report was launched. Photograph: Maxwells

Ombudsman for Children Niall Muldoon with Amy Ward and Aimee Fagan at St Mary’s Holy Faith Secondary School Killester, Dublin, where the Ombudsman’s annual report was launched. Photograph: Maxwells

 

The older you are, the likelier you are to fall seriously ill with Covid-19. That has meant that older people have suffered the worst direct health effects of the virus, and have had to take the most extensive measures to protect themselves from it. But the adverse impacts of the pandemic have been felt far more broadly, and fewer have been more exposed to those wider indirect effects than children. Their development and education has been severely hit by lockdowns. Young people with special needs have regressed and the experience of social isolation has taken a toll on the mental health of many others.

It will take time to fully assess that impact, but the annual report of the Ombudsman for Children offers troubling real-time snapshots. Its analysis of complaints received in 2020 shows that the pandemic produced a whole new set of themes, including remote learning and the digital divide; lack of clarity about State exams; and calculated grades. The report highlights the impact on children’s mental health and puts particular focus on the problems facing children in high-risk households who feared bringing Covid-19 home.

The number of children contacting the Ombudsman’s office directly increased last year, which, Ombudsman Niall Muldoon suggests, implies that the voice of the child was not being heard by Government and decision-makers. That was evident in many of the debates about public health restrictions over the past year, and will no doubt be considered by a future public inquiry into the handling of the crisis.

Muldoon has spoken of the need for a “Covid dividend” for children. “There can be no return to the old normal,” he says, “where babies learn to crawl in emergency accommodation, teenagers in severe physical pain wait years for scoliosis operations or those in mental turmoil wait years for psychological intervention and where Traveller children are bullied for where they live”. It’s an important point. Covid-19 has made children’s lives worse. But a great many of them were already experiencing real hardship. Returning to “normal” is not an ambition but an admission of defeat.

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